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Lord Bell beats lobbying claims
as GMB is rapped over ad

LONDON - Lord Bell, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and PR impresario, has scored a victory over the GMB union after the advertising watchdog upheld a complaint over a press advertisement, which highlighted his PR firm's role in lobbying for private companies taking over public services.

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The victory came despite the union's claims that the advertisement fell into the genre of political ad -- an area not covered by the Advertising Standards Authority -- and its argument that Lord Bell was a lobbyist.

The disputed ad featured the union's logo and the line "GMB Britain's General Union", followed by "Keep public services public".

The ad featured two pictures. At the top was a picture of a nurse looking at a baby in an incubator. Below was a picture of Lord Bell with former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and in between the ad asked, "Who do you think the NHS should spend its money on?"

Body copy for the ad went on to state, "Private companies will make more than £3bn profit from the government's plans to privatise our public services. Sir Tim Bell (sic), Mrs Thatcher's old spin doctor, has been employed by them to convince more ministers to give them more contracts. We think that money should be spent on more doctors and nurses. What do you think?"

An unnamed complainant objected that the ad was misleading because Lord Bell had no involvement in the Public Private Partnership forum and his agency, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, had been retained by the PPP to provide general PR support, not to lobby the government.

The complainant also pointed out that the ad portrayed Lord Bell "adversely without his permission".

The ASA's adjudication hinged on whether or not Lord Bell's company had been employed to lobby the government or to give general PR advice.

The union supported its argument with news cuttings, saying that Bell Pottinger Public Affairs did have a role in lobbying the government. However, the ASA concluded that the union had not provided enough evidence to prove the lobbying claim. It asked the advertiser not to repeat its claim.

The ASA refuted claims that the ad was exempt from its code because it was political in nature, saying that readers would not necessarily be aware of the advertiser's intention to hold a referendum on private sector management of local health services.

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